Three Little Boys

It seems as though everyone is posting about the attacks at the Boston Marathon yesterday. Most of us can’t erase the images, and the unfolding events, from our minds. What I will remember the most when I think about this day are three young children–all boys, all strangers.

Patriot’s Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts. If you live here, it’s a significant date on the calendar. Patriots Day marks an unofficial start to spring, the beginning of a week of school vacation, an opportunity to reflect on the intellectual and philosophical spirit and emerging national identity that heralded  the Revolutionary War, and a chance to celebrate two beloved athletic events: a Red Sox home game, and the Boston Marathon, which ends less than a mile from Fenway Park.

I’m a marathon runner myself. I’ve covered those 26.2 miles on foot many times, and crossed the finish line in front of the Boston Public Library twice. As many people have written in the past two days, the Marathon has become not only a premiere international race, but also an individual and collective social action effort. Many of the runners making their way down Boylston Street at the time of the explosions had entered the race to end cancer,  AIDS,  homelessness, hunger, and other medical and social causes. They were not  celebrity athletes; they were the “regular” people who find time to train on weekends, early in the mornings, and late in the day. They slogged through the snowy streets this winter, building up their stamina. They sent letters and posted pledge sheets, collecting donations in the name of loved ones. They stood at the starting line on the main street of Hopkinton yesterday morning, exhilarated and a little anxious as they thought about the next four hours of their day.

Most of the spectators standing along those four blocks had been there for hours. They had seen the champions speed past. Now they were watching the 9- and 10-minute milers in their final push to the blue and gold marker painted on the street. They cheered, calling out last words of encouragement, sharing the moment of personal victory for each of those people, enjoying a crisp spring day–that is the spirit of this marathon.

Some of the folks  along those last few blocks–Hereford, Gloucester, and Fairfield Streets– made their way into the Marathon scene after leaving the baseball game, which had just ended. The Husband and I were in the midst of that  group. We had enjoyed a spectacular day watching our team from a pair of terrific seats above the first base line. Part of the joy of the game was provided by our seatmates–a little boy named David and his father. Although we had never met, we all subscribed to the commonly accepted assumption that anyone who shares your row at Fenway is, at least for those few hours, a friend. David is a first-grader. He has the face of countless children who fall in love with baseball for both the joy of the game and the mystique of the ball park. David’s father and I talked a bit between innings and during the slow moments. We expressed our shared devotion to our sons. The dad agreed with me completely when I said that The Boy is my most important investment. We discussed schools, vacations, and family values. David ate a hot dog, sipped on a large soda in a commemorative cup, and smiled shyly when I asked him questions. He kept track of the pitching changes, the outs, and the batting order.

When the game ended, The Husband and I decided that our best plan was to walk from Fenway through the Back Bay and over the bridge into Cambridge, where we would take the Red Line to the commuter train back to our home in the suburbs. In order to execute that plan, we had to get across the Marathon course at Beacon Street. Runners were streaming past us, with a little more than half a mile to go to the finish line.  We stopped for a few minutes to watch them before joining the throngs that were descending into the subway station at Kenmore Square. I held onto The Husband’s coat sleeve to keep from getting separated from him as we made our way through the crowded tunnel under the street and out to the other side. Not long after we had begun our walk across the bridge, we heard the first blast. It was about four blocks behind us. A huge cloud of white-gray smoke rose above the buildings. Everyone stopped and turned to look. People offered their first ideas: a commemorative cannon, a traffic accident, an exploding manhole cover, a burst gas pipe…then the second bomb went off. More smoke drifted up. At that moment, we knew something was wrong. Within minutes, sirens sounded from every direction. Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and motorcycles screamed past us. For several minutes, we stood on the bridge watching, although there was really nothing to see. We checked Twitter, news websites, and e-mail. Then we walked on, looking for a place that we could see a TV.

We entered one of the MIT bar/restaurants just as the first camera coverage was being aired. The place wasn’t very crowded, so we were able to find a seat. The bartender turned up the volume on the television and as the reports came in, everyone stopped talking to watch and listen. Those images–dazed runners, spectators covered in blood, emergency responders pushing wheelchairs and gurneys–were almost impossible to process. We had been right there. We had heard the blasts. We were still less than a mile away.

More and more people began to fill the restaurant. Many of them had been walking back from the game, or from watching the race. They had also heard the explosions and wanted to get more information. I turned around to see a little boy with his eyes wide and his mouth open, staring at the screen. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. I’m sure he had come in with an adult, but there was no one standing with him. I said, “are you OK, watching this??” He looked at me for a few seconds and nodded his head. “This looks really scary, doesn’t it?” I continued. “You know, there are a lot of grownups over there helping everyone. They’ll take care of the people who are hurt.” I didn’t know what else to say.

A few hours later, The Husband and I were safely back at home, still trying to absorb the events and watching more news. When it was revealed that one of the lives lost had been that of an eight-year-old boy, my heart sank even more than it had earlier in the day. A little boy with his family, enjoying one of the great, wholesome, community-wide celebrations in our city. A little kid, watching people accomplish their personal goals, modeling perseverance, motivation, and the human spirit.

Three little boys, surrounded by adults. What did David and his father talk about when they found out that this horror occurred a few minutes after the baseball game ended? What did that child in the bar think, and who else helped him make sense what he had seen on television? What happens to a family literally shattered on a street in the midst of a civic celebration that suddenly turns into a war zone?

I can’t stop thinking of the poem that Nikki Giovanni wrote in the aftermath of September 11. It’s called “Desperate Acts.”

Its not easy to understand

Why angry men commit
Desperate acts

Its not easy to understand
How some dreams become
Nightmares

Those who wish
And those who need
Often feel alone

Its easy to strike back
But hard to understand

She’s right. It isn’t easy to understand. But we need to teach about understanding. For David, for the little boy in the bar, for the children who knew the child who died. We are the grownups. We are their grownups.

Plotting Our Own Course

The Boy inadvertently gave me the metaphor for this post. On the way to school the other day,  he said, “I wonder if you could use the quadratic formula to create a set of coordinates for a circle.” (This is a good question to get your mind working at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning). He quickly realized that a different function would be required to create a shape that arcs back to connect to itself on a coordinate plane. Then we talked about how the quadratic equation always results in a parabola–a perfect, symmetric curve with two arms that reach, ever wider, into infinity.

It’s a beautiful thing, the parabola. It’s anchored somewhere on the y-axis, but otherwise, its path — and the points within its branches — are limitless. What an elegant image to represent the path of our own lives: grounded in at least one base point, and open to possibilities. Every time we add new experiences and new relationships, it’s as if we’ve plotted more values on an enormous sheet of graph paper. The shape grows wider to hold more of the grid, but the formula guarantees that it will retain its integrity.

This week, my own parabola got wider, but my intercept values are still secure. On Monday, I signed a contract and accepted a leadership role at a new school. After 12 years of deeply gratifying work at an extraordinary place, the decision to leave was not an easy one. I have loved my students, my colleagues, the families, and the guiding principles of my school. I have watched children grow from wide-eyed, diminutive pre-kindergarteners into mature, poised, and confident teenagers. I have cried at graduation speeches, delighted in the progress of young readers and mathematicians, had my heart warmed by community celebrations, been nurtured and supported during my own challenges, and have been given the honor and the privilege of sending more than 100 novice teachers out into the world. I love my job. And yet, it’s time to reach further.

For the past year, I’ve been looking for the “just-right” position, relying on my inner quadratic function to guide me in the proper direction. After many conversations, interviews, school tours, and careful reflection, I have found it. Or, to be more accurate, the job found me. An inquiry from the Head of School nearly two months ago led to an exchange of increasingly exciting e-mails, a Skype call, a long day of travel and meetings, more e-mails and calls, and finally, a mutual sense of connection. It is right. It is a new x-intercept.

The Boy will graduate from my current school (his school, our school) on June 7. That morning will also be my last day as an official member of the faculty.Five days after graduation, I will turn 50. It is poetic, and fitting, to start my second half-century with a significant change. The Boy’s teachers have been my colleagues and friends; those points on my graph have been plotted and will always remain.  The Boy and I will walk out of the building together, each of us on the way to our respective next schools, with a summer vacation to serve as the buffer between the known and the new.

When September arrives, our lives will be quite different. My new job is 126 miles away from our house. I’ve reserved a fantastic (yet small) apartment in the heart of New Haven, where I’ll stay from Mondays to Fridays. On weekends, I’ll be back at our house in Massachusetts, or the Husband and The Boy will come to Connecticut. We’ve all made the trip, toured the city, seen the school, met the people, and begun to envision the future.

I believe strongly in the power of intention. I also believe that as long as we are alive, there is always time and space to learn, grow, embrace new challenges, resist inertia, and do our very best to contain all the points we build into our parabolas.

Proportions

Yesterday was The Boy’s birthday. He’s 14 now.

The length of his lifespan computes to approximately 29% of my own life. In this case, statistical calculations do not offer an appropriate representation of the value of those fourteen years. For fourteen years and eight months, The Boy’s existence has been central to my own. Since the moment I found out about him, he has been a cherished and essential element of my daily consciousness. My transformation from individual traveler in the Universe to  parenthood is one of the greatest and most humbling changes I have ever experienced. In my case, this identity shift occurred by choice and deliberate action, and was sanctioned by a religiously and federally-approved marriage with an equally committed co-parent. It is, however, precisely the same gift that my friends and neighbors have experienced through adoption, gamete donation, family blending, and devotion to the people with whom we have all formed homes.

Love makes a family.

If you are lucky, you are a member of a family formed by love. If you are loved, you are statistically more likely to succeed in life.

This statement begs the question: How do we define success?

If you have found this blog post, some portion of our society has already defined you as “successful.” Rest assured, I am not arrogant enough to think that reading my blog is a mark of success. Access to any site such as this one, however, is an indication of a certain type of cultural capital. You are literate. You have the means to use a computer and a link to the Internet. Depending on the time of day that you are reading this digital missive, you have probably eaten at least one healthy meal today. I hope that you slept in a warm bed last night, and that in the past 24 hours, someone has told you that you are loved. If you are loved, you are not alone. If you love, someone else is not alone.

I’m writing this post on a Sunday night. Over the weekend, we have spent time with The Husband and The Boy, with my very best friend and her daughter, with four of The Boy’s closest buddies, with one of our dearest friends, and with my parents. I spoke to my precious niece. All of these people are part of our family. It’s a family formed by love. It’s a family formed by choice. The Boy chose the people he wanted to be a part of his birthday weekend. He chose well.

My boy is 14. He loves, and is loved. He has a family, built through biology and choice. There is no percentage or numerical exercise to determine the value of the people in his lives. There is no greater gift.

Coming Unraveled

Did you know that the words ravel and unravel mean the same thing? Merriam-Webster explains that they are both transitive verbs that relate to the process of separating the strands or threads in a woven material. When I checked the dictionary before I started this post, I was hoping  and expecting that ravel meant the opposite of unravel. Part of my interest was poetic; I wanted the perfect label for the topic of this post. Also, though, it just seemed right and logical that if one word starts with un-, it should mean the opposite of the root word that follows the prefix. Once again, the English language baffles us.

I wanted a word that means “pull together.” I hoped that ravel was the correct one. The best word for my reflections today is probably knit, which is ironic, because I can’t. Knit, that is. But the word carries so many relevant connotations that I’m going to leave it there. It’s the metaphor I want, after all.

About five years ago, my friend Carol made me a pair of socks. They are among the most treasured gifts anyone has ever given me. Part of their value certainly rests in the fact that Carol died, too soon and too young, more than a year ago. But whenever I wear those socks, they bring her right back. I love those socks because the best gifts we can ever give are the ones that show how well we know someone. Carol and I worked together for ten years. We shared stories about our sons, recipes for stews, risotto, breads, and fresh vegetables. We knew each other’s favorite books. We shared our own special bond around the change of seasons in New England, choosing the date and temperature when we would start, or stop, wearing socks for the year. My soft, colorful, warm wool pair were a recognition of my Friday footwear: Dansko clogs in purple or orange leather, fuschia felt, or bright blue suede. Carol was a clog-wearer, too, and she loved my bold end-of-week choices.

Carol was an avid knitter. She could transform  a skein of yarn into practically anything. She was the go-to guru at our school whenever anyone was having trouble with a stitch gauge, a color selection, or a pattern choice. She was there for all of us who a needed a companion for a late afternoon of needlework or quiet talk. She held onto secrets, provided wise advice, and made us laugh. I am not the only one who misses her every day. She was one of the strands that held our community together. If you are a part of a group that is bound by someone like Carol, you know how lucky you are.

In my extended family, my dad is one of those strands. As his generation ages, his role has become more evident to him and to everyone else. My father grew up in a time and a place where his best friends were also his first cousins. They spent their childhoods in each other’s living rooms and backyards, played high school sports together, swam together at the beach all summer, engaged in who-knows-what-kinds of mischief, served as each other’s best men and as the godfathers of their respective children. They  played golf, went to college sports events,  met for Wednesday breakfasts, and lately, have sat in hospital rooms. Gradually, they are leaving us. One of those guys, Neal, died last week. My father was with him 20 minutes before he passed. On his way home, my dad took three calls on his mobile phone. His was the first voice that Neal’s eldest son, daughter, and sister needed to hear as they processed their loss.

My son, The Boy, was with my parents for the weekend before Neal died. He saw my dad preparing for the imminent news, and he felt the depth of my father’s grief. When Neal died that Tuesday, The Boy said, “I have to call Papa.” He understood what it meant for my father to be that strand.

We are all bound to other people. We need those connections, and we make the ties stronger as we grow together. Those socks that Carol made–they are made of one strand of yarn. One single thread.

In Review

The last time I posted here, it was July, almost six months ago to the day. Oh, well. It’s my blog. I can write (or not write) however often I choose. Today, I choose to write. Mid-afternoon sun is streaming through the windows of our family room, and the boy and I are still wearing our pajamas. These final days of winter break are always so mellow. We’ve been back and forth to Manhattan twice in the past nine days, celebrating holidays with many of our nearest and dearest. Now we’re home, gearing up for a new semester and some big changes.

IMG_1063We are (all of us, really) in the midst of high school applications for the boy. He’s up to his nostrils in essays, short-answer prompts, and personal reflections. We’ve been on campus tours, participated in interviews, read guidebooks, and investigated web sites. He’s considering questions that most of us would struggle to answer as adults: “Describe a time when your beliefs about something changed.” “Imagine you are writing your autobiography. Submit page 179. Feel free to be creative.”  “What are your favorite qualities about yourself?”

As we’ve been reading his drafts, the husband and I can’t help but think about what our own answers might be. In addition, we have our own essays to prepare. One of the forms asks us to compose a parenting motto and explain it. This challenge has been on my mind for more than a week. I’m not sure I could reduce my parenting to a motto. We certainly have an approach, and we’re both extremely mindful of the great privilege and responsibility we have in sending this young man out into the world– but a motto?  I can’t come up with anything that isn’t trite. Here are a couple of attempts.

“Love and Limits.” This has potential, I guess. We could explain that in our family, as much as we cherish our son, we know how important it is to provide guidelines that lead him to make good choices.

“Find Your Own Joy.” More than anything, I want my son to be resilient. I want him to know how to recognize disappointments as specific incidents, not defining characteristics, in his life. Every day, he and I talk about the highlight of our day–and there are only rare occasions when one of us will say that it hasn’t happened yet; that maybe a snuggle on the couch or a yummy dinner with be the best part of the day. I believe that kind of deliberate optimism is essential to a life well-lived.

“You Don’t Have To Be The Best; You Just Have To Do Your Best.” This might be the winner, and it’s a message we’ve repeated countless times with our boy. He has many wonderful talents and skills, and he is fortunate to be capable in a number of areas–but he’s not a star at everything. For the areas where he excels, we expect (and we expect him to expect of himself) excellence. For the pursuits that are not his strengths, we expect (and expect him to expect of himself) his best effort. We are equally proud (and expect him to be equally proud) of the results.

And so, as a new calendar year begins, and a school year begins a new term, and our lives continue to unfold, we can all find a few moments for review.

Fireworks

There are places in the world where it’s impossible to ignore the sky.

Here I am, in one of those places. As you know from several previous posts, this is where I recharge. It’s where I sleep late, exercise as much, and in as many forms as I want, cook whatever makes me and my people happy, and relax into a state of complete calm.

This visit is no different from the many others that have preceded it. As is typical, we arrived here after a high-energy, intense (and I’m glad to report, successful)  burst of work and productivity. The boy had been on a series of adventures across the Northeast for a couple of weeks and we were all thrilled to be reunited for a 10-day vacation in the heaven of the Hudson Valley.

Which brings us to the sky.

There are hills here. Hills, and meadows, and cornfields, and close-up contact with flora of every color. Above all of it is a sky that is layered with texture. On the brightest, sunniest day, the sky can show you fourteen shades of blue. If it’s really hot, the sky can be white. When a storm comes in (and lucky, lucky, you if you’re outdoors to watch it approach), you can be astonished by the variations of gray that roll above you. At the end of the day, the sunset reflects off of everything below and everything above. Sunset literally vibrates here–in tones of pink, purple, orange, and a red that takes your breath away. Stay out later, and you’ll see the purest indigo lit up by stars and moon only the way a country night can shine.

We’ve had all of those skies in the past week. How about this, on my favorite walk, bracketed by a postcard scene so perfect you’d think it was staged?

Or how about this, taken during the preparations for our barbecue party, when the rain and hail came down so hard that we could literally pour a glass of ice water by holding up a cup?

But the best of all was display on the evening of July 4. We drove out to Poughkipsee to watch a fireworks show over the Hudson River. We arrived as the sun was sinking below the hills and the clouds were massing over the water. This was what we saw as we walked onto the bridge:

We found seats in front of the railing to wait for dark, when the light show would begin. Above us, this was happening:

The view up the river was a scene out of one of the greatest romantic stories about the Hudson:

And then the lightning started and the rains came, and the bridge had to be evacuated to protect all of us from harm. We didn’t rush to leave, and we weren’t particularly disappointed.

Really. What kind of competition could a barge-load of gunpowder and chemicals pose to this?

We drove home watching lightning bounce among the clouds. It was the best 4th of July show ever.

Marathon Monday

Yes, I know the post title says “Monday,” when it’s already Wednesday. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for a blog post to make its way from my brain onto my computer screen.

I did not run the Boston Marathon on Monday. Considering that there were *only* 26,000-ish people who did run the race, my non-participation is not particularly notable. Added to that fact is the reality that today marks exactly nine months since I had three of my vertebrae fused, and there really should be no surprise that I wasn’t one of the people in the insanely unseasonable heat making my way on foot from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. I haven’t actually run the Boston Marathon since 1995, but once it’s in your blood, the sense of connection never goes away. The last marathon that I completed was New York City, in 2007. The following year one of my lumbar discs, which had apparently been disintegrating for months, exploded dramatically while I was running a leisurely half-marathon in New Hampshire. Since then, my spine has continued to demand surgical attention, and the only road race I’ve entered was a Race for the Cure 5K in 2009.

I still miss it.

To the non-runners out there, this entire post probably sounds bizarre, but long distance running is one of the great calming activities of modern life, in my opinion. It is the “couch potato” option for over-achievers. I mean it. Once you’ve built up a basic level of endurance, a long run is incredibly relaxing and meditative.

I started running when I was 13, and I never gave it up. I fell in love with the rhythm, the pace, the breathing, and the opportunity to see familiar places from a different perspective than simply driving past them. Once I started road racing, I was completely hooked on the experience of seeing a location from the middle of the road in the midst of a pack of other runners. There’s an annual 10-mile race in my hometown that I entered for the first time when I was in high school. I ran that race every year for a very long time, as well as dozens of 10-Ks, half-marathons, 5-milers, a bunch of full marathons, and other events of varying distances. I was never fast, but I was steady. When I was in my 20s, I got up almost every day at 5:30 a.m. and ran at least five miles.  My morning jog defined my life for almost 30 years. Building up to longer distances  was only an incremental shift and a scheduling issue. Running 10, 15, 20 miles is really just a matter of planning and showing up. It is simultaneously self-indulgent and virtuous, which is a complicated combination of attributes for an overachiever. There is no question that claiming three hours out of a weekend for a training run could affect the other people in my life. Once I’d made my arrangements and gotten out out on the road, however, I was free to think about anything I wanted.  I used to keep a mental list of topics to consider at my leisure–what a luxury! I solved personal dilemmas, planned elaborate menus for parties, and balanced my budget on long runs. I composed most of my dissertation while training for the New York Marathon. I trained on the Boston Marathon route regularly, whether I was preparing for that race or simply going out for a challenging hill run. Living in the neighborhood of one of the most respected distance challenges in the USA had its impact.

And so, when Marathon Monday rolls around, there is a part of me that feels a pull. This year, we were in Portland, Maine enjoying a gorgeous long weekend with friends. That morning, I went out for a long walk, followed by a Pilates class. We only caught a few glimpses of the TV coverage of the race. A lot of people struggled through the heat. The winning times were relatively slow due to the weather. Hundreds (or thousands?) of folks crossed that finish line for the first time.

I had dinner with a couple of friends in Cambridge Monday night. As I got out of my  car, two runners walked past me, still wearing their race numbers. I felt a tightening in my throat, thinking of the fatigue and satisfaction and the last burst of adrenaline that was keeping them going. It was 6:30 in the evening–they must have finished the race a couple of hours previously and were making their way home after a very long day.

“I can’t believe you’re still on your feet,” I said to them with admiration.

“Neither can I,” said the woman.

I remember that feeling.

Cheers, to all the runners and all of the people who set goals for themselves just to see if they can achieve them.